Serbia is in many respects an anchor of stability in the Western Balkans. In this context, the normalisation of relations with Pristina is a key factor, both for Serbia to advance on its EU path and for moving forward in the reconciliation process. Furthermore, all questions related to free and fair conditions for elections should be addressed and resolved in an inclusive dialogue

At the time of this interview, it seems highly likely that a start date for EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania will soon be set. The news that the German Bundestag recently offered its strong support for the accession process of the two countries represents a new, major boost to the EU membership hopes of both Balkan countries and the entire region. It is in line with the Austrian support to the EU future of the Western Balkans.

Our interlocutor, Wolfgang Sobotka, President of the National Council of Austria, the Austrian Parliament, is a vocal supporter of such developments. He believes that the Council of the EU and the European Parliament will stand behind the idea that the Western Balkan countries belong to the European family, and points out that Austria has always supported candidate countries in their efforts to convince sceptical EU member states that the enlargement process is the strongest motor for positive change in the region. Yet, it is a destiny that every country in the region has to choose on its own, and implies working diligently and continuously on accepting political and economic reforms, which are “first and foremost in the interest of the countries and their populations”, underlines our interlocutor.

Austria has always supported candidate countries in their efforts to convince sceptical EU member states that the enlargement process is the strongest driver of positive change in the region

You have reiterated many times that it is necessary to provide the Balkans with clear accession prospects. Do you think that the EU still clearly stands behind this message after the recent changes in the EU leadership? How numerous are sceptical member states today?

– It is my firm belief that the European project remains incomplete until all countries of the Western Balkans have joined the EU. On my initiative, the Speakers of the parliaments of EU countries discussed the relationship between the EU and its neighbours at their annual conference last April in Vienna. On this occasion, we once again reaffirmed the European perspective of the Western Balkans, as well as our commitment to EU enlargement in the region. Ursula Von der Leyen conveyed the same message in the political guidelines for the new European Commission in July.

Austria has always supported candidate countries in their efforts to convince sceptical EU member states that the enlargement process is the strongest motor for positive change in the region. In my encounters with my EU counterparts, I have been advocating for the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania over recent months. I have also pointed out that the EU needs to appreciate and honour the reforms undertaken by Serbia and Montenegro.

Do you think that the accession message clearly resonates among the Balkan countries themselves? Who are the frontrunners today among the Balkan countries and who has fallen behind the pace?

– From my visits to the region, I recall that most people in the Western Balkans strongly hold a pro-European sentiment. EU membership continues to be the most powerful driver of political and economic reforms, which are first and foremost in the interest of the countries and their populations. The pace of reforms is decisive for each country’s progress towards EU membership. Being frontrunners today does not guarantee to join the European Union first.

WOLFGANG SOBOTKA WITH SERBIAN PRESIDENT ALEKSANDAR VUČIĆ, BELGRADE, 13TH NOVEMBER 2018

In that respect, what is your main message to Belgrade?

– I see Serbia, in many respects, as an anchor of stability in the Western Balkans. Belgrade will significantly shape the future of the whole region. In this context, the normalisation of relations with Pristina is a key factor, both for Serbia to advance on its EU path and for moving forward in the reconciliation process.

Furthermore, all questions related to free and fair conditions for elections should be addressed and resolved in an inclusive dialogue. I strongly welcome the government’s readiness to engage in these talks. Whenever support is needed, Austria will be there as a close friend of Serbia.

Time and patience are needed for the people in the Western Balkans to fully embrace the idea of becoming part of the EU and adhering to European values and rules

There is an initiative of the Austrian Parliament to give an impetus to the EU integration-driven reforms of the parliamentary administrations of the Western Balkans. How can the parliaments of the so-called WB6 contribute to the EU accession process and democratisation?

– Parliaments play an essential role in upholding and strengthening the rule of law and democracy. Members of Parliament have the task of reaching out to citizens and giving a voice to their aspirations and demands. MPs can contribute a lot to the EU accession process by ensuring that people understand and support the need for reforms.

In order to strengthen the capacities of Western Balkans’ parliamentary administrations, the Austrian Parliament is offering fellowships for officials who want to familiarise themselves with the practices of a parliament in the EU and to learn from their Austrian colleagues. The first group of fellows recently arrived in Vienna, and I hope that many more will follow.

As you have stated, there is a need to anchor the course towards the EU irreversibly in the heart and minds of people in the WB6. How does the involvement of other major countries, such as Russia and China, impact on EU sentiment in the WB6; and who has to lead this battle for hearts and minds, and how?

– When I look back on Austria’s EU accession process, which started in 1989, I have to acknowledge that people’s support for EU membership was not guaranteed from the beginning. It took some time to build a consensus among all parties and to win the hearts and minds of two-thirds of Austrians, who finally voted in favour of EU membership in 1994.

Time and patience are also needed for the people in the Western Balkans to fully embrace the idea of becoming part of the EU and adhering to European values and rules. The EU stands for more than any single third country. It remains unique and attractive in terms of political stability, economic power, social protection and democratic standards. History tells us that the countries of the Western Balkans belong to Europe.

RECOGNITION

It is my opinion that the EU needs to appreciate and honour the reforms undertaken by Serbia and Montenegro

FAIRNESS

The pace of reforms is decisive for each country’s progress towards EU membership. Being frontrunners today does not guarantee to join the European Union firs

SUPPORT

The Austrian Parliament is deeply engaged in strengthening the capacities of the Western Balkans’ parliamentary administrations